Katharine Furse

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Katharine Furse (Glyn Philpot, 1920)

Dame Katharine Furse, GBE, RRC (née Symonds; 23 November 1875, Bristol – 25 November 1952, London), founder of the English Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) force, was the daughter of the poet and critic John Addington Symonds and Janet Catherine North. Her aunt was the painter Marianne North.


Educated by governesses and her mother, Furse spent most of her early life in Switzerland and Italy. In 1900 she married the painter Charles Wellington Furse, who died four years later leaving her with two young children. In 1909 Furse joined the British Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment that was attached to the Territorial Army. On the outbreak of the First World War she was chosen to head the first Voluntary Aid Detachment unit to be sent to France. Aware of her administrative abilities, the authorities decided to place her in charge of the VAD Department in London.[1]

On the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Furse realised that the existing number of nurses would prove totally inadequate to deal with the enormous amount of work which might be expected, and in September 1914 she proceeded to France with a number of assistants, these forming the nucleus of the VAD force. In January 1915 she returned to England, and the VAD work was then officially recognised as a department of the Red Cross organization. She received the order of the RRC in 1916, and the GBE in June 1917.[2] Although she considered it a great success being head of the Voluntary Aid Detachment, Furse was unhappy about her lack of power to introduce reforms. In November 1917, she and several of her senior colleagues resigned, due to a dispute over the living conditions of the VAD volunteers and the Red Cross refusal to co-ordinate with the Woman's Army group.[3]

She was immediately offered the post as director of the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS), this was equivalent to the rank of rear admiral.[4] The Royal Navy was the first of the armed forces to recruit women and since 1916 the Women's Royal Naval Service took over the role of cooks, clerks, wireless telegraphists, code experts and electricians. The women were so successful that other organizations such as the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) and the Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF) were also established.

After the war, Furse joined the travel agency of Sir Henry Lunn (later known as Lunn Polly). Working mainly in Switzerland, she became an expert skier and did a great deal to popularize the sport with British tourists.[4] Her achievements were acknowledged when she became President of the Ladies' Ski Club.[1]

Her autobiography, Hearts and Pomegranates was published in 1940.[5] In 1920, Furse formed the Association of Wrens and this led to her becoming head of the Sea Rangers (formerly known as the Sea Guides),[4] and for ten years, from 1928 to 1938, was director of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts,[4] whose constitution she drafted.[6]

Her last public appearance was at the Conference of Former Scouts in London in September 1952. She died in London, two days after her 77th birthday.[7]


  1. ^ a b "Dame Katharine Furse (1875-1952), Nurse and nursing administrator; director of the Women's Royal Naval Service". npg.org.uk. Retrieved 24 November 2017.
  2. ^ Ursula Stuart Mason BritanniaÍs Daughters, p. 7, at Google Books
  3. ^ Peter Stansky -The Worlds of Philip and Sybil, p. 84, at Google Books
  4. ^ a b c d William Stewart Admirals of the World: A Biographical Dictionary, 1500 to the Present, p. 137, at Google Books
  5. ^ Cathy Hartley A Historical Dictionary of British Women at Google Books
  6. ^ Tammy M. Proctor Scouting for Girls: A Century of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, p. 70, at Google Books
  7. ^ "Director Dame Katharine Furse nee Symonds". livesofthefirstworldwar.org. Retrieved 24 November 2017.

External links[edit]

World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts
New title World Association Director
1928 — 1938
Succeeded by
Arethusa Leigh-White
New title World Association Director
1938 — 1947
Succeeded by